An Overview and Appreciation of the Games of Cole Wehrle
By Simmy Peerutin
With the interest shown in designer Cole Wehrle’s latest game, Root, at Gencon this year it seems a good time to look back at some of his previous games – Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic, and John Company.
Please do not expect a full rules explanation. This article tries only to convey the general flow of the game. Also, please forgive the depth of the review. I have too many games to play and too little time to play them and so I rarely have the luxury of exploring their full potential, and these games below are no exception. I also think of myself as an ‘experiential’ gamer – one who values the immersion over the tactics and certainly over winning (which I rarely do)
Playing each of the games again in preparation for this article, similarities and differences become clear.
I had erroneously thought that this was Cole’s second game, but in fact it was his first published game. It is a game about Afghanistan in the early nineteenth century, when the region was a buffer zone between expanding Russian colonial/imperial interests, and British holdings in India. As Cole writes in his introduction: “There, in the shadow of the Pamir Mountains, the stage was set for a contest that would define the lines of imperialism in the 19th century to the present day.”
This game is based on Phil Eklund’s brilliant, anarchic Pax Porfiriana and borrows its central ‘market of cards’ mechanism as well as it’s unique alternative victory conditions. It diverges and expands on this by adding a board (purchased separately-highly recommended, or a set of cards used as a board, which comes with the base game) which adds an element of area control, and a ‘card capture’ mechanic in the form of ‘spy’ cubes moving sequentially around players’ card tableaux. The multiple uses of cubes is also expanded upon; here, cylinders are armies if in a location and roads if between locations.
Players start with loyalty to one of three entities – Russia, Britain or Native Afghan, although that may change voluntarily during the game. As soon as a player has the most loyalty in an entity they receive one of three favour cards, given them a small advantage in attack (Russia), movement (Afghan) and money (Britain). As in Pax Porfiriana there are different victory conditions – one attached to each of four game states, called Regimes – Political Fragmentation requires supremacy in tribes, Economic Boom requires supremacy in Roads, Intelligence War requires spies and Military Struggle…you can guess. But its not so easy. Firstly someone has to have more of the required units AND at least one of each other type of unit. THEN one has to purchase a TOPPLE card from the market. And while you are trying to maneuver all of those moving parts another player can cause a Regime Change!
These mechanics are so different to what most gamers are used to that it can be overwhelming. At first, the rules, victory conditions and the mechanics seem complex but in actual fact I believe they are actually much more straightforward and simpler than they appear. This is common to all three of the games discussed here. It is the novelty of the mechanics that confuses.
It is difficult to discern where Phil’s influence ends and Cole’s starts, but on the face of it, working with Phil seems to have influenced and inspired Cole’s later published games. As Cole himself said in response to a question I asked him: “When Pax Porfiriana game out in 2012 it was a revelation for me and totally changed how I thought about game design. I played it as much as I could and it also pushed me to start designing. After a few frenzied weeks of work, I actually sent Phil a “draft” of Pax Renaissance around November of that year. He liked the design, even if it was early, and I started helping him playtest. Eventually he encouraged me to try my hand at design.”
To me this is the best of the Pax games to date and the richness of the gameplay never ceases to amaze me. However, this is not a game for the casual gamer and even hardcore gamers will need to expend the necessary time learning and experiencing the game to really unlock its beauty and elegance.
An Infamous Traffic
Published by Hollandspiele as a full game or as a print and play, this is a game about opium smuggling into Qing China in the early 19th Century. To set the scene, read an extract from a speech in 1840 by William Gladstone, British politician and later Prime Minister: “ A war more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace….Now under the auspices of the noble lord (McAuley) that flag is become a pirate flag, to protect an infamous traffic”. Also I can highly recommend the series of books written by Amitav Ghosh, called the Ibis Trilogy, for a wonderful evocation of the era.
Players are private companies investing in infrastructure, conspiring to influence foreign and domestic policy in China, and completing supply chains to provide Indian opium to willing Chinese buyers. All players are trying to increase revenue but, somewhat whimsically, (although possibly faithful to the period) the real objective is to obtain prizes during the end-of -turn London Season, prizes from a Peerage (worth 3VP) to A Fancy Hat (1VP), to a Scandal (-1VP).
During a turn one can perform one action at a time for multiple rounds until everyone has passed. Main actions range from investment in opium, ships or merchants and placing these investments in supply chains, and placing various counters (representing British influence, Quin forces, smugglers, bureaucrats, missionaries) in various spaces on the board.
Taking British influence counters raises outrage; taking Qing forces balances that outrage in that as long as there are more Qing forces on the board than the level of outrage, an opium war is prevented. Smugglers and missionaries (surprise!) raise opium demand and bureaucrats clog up (but also help complete) supply chains. Qing forces sometimes carry out police actions which remove smugglers and cause outrage. Completed supply chains – generally consisting of opium, a ship, and probably a smuggler or two, a merchant and a bureaucrat in various iterations. Once completed, all players who have Enterprises in that supply chain increase their revenue.
Increasing revenue allows one to take more investment actions and pay for enterprises as well as compete for prizes by sending a representative of the family that owns the private company – called a scion – back to London for the ‘Season’. This allows the Scion to compete for prizes.
As mentioned above, the actions one can take and their consequences at first seems somewhat opaque, but the gameplay is simpler than at first impression. There are elements of cooperation between players – when completing supply chains – but also an element of backstabbing, when undertaking the ‘underselling‘ action, which allows players to replace enterprises of a rival by replacing their counter with a counter of a lower value. And what has happened in the games I have played is a seesawing tit for tat which is uncomfortable.
Reading the Ibis Trilogy mentioned above, and playing the game while doing so, made me appreciate how the various elements of the opium smuggling trade have been brilliantly portrayed here. This is partly explained by something Cole wrote in answer to a question about the design process that I posed:
“The way my design process works, I tend to spend a lot of time at with a bird’s-eye view on my subject and then build little proof of concepts to see if a particular perspective is viable. Most of the time these proof of concepts fail, but sometimes they work”.
But I think that this game suffers somewhat from this birds eye view, where it seems that in abstracting the various myriad elements has resulted in gameplay that can be unsatisfying. As Cole says in the excellent Design Notes and Strategy section of the rules, this is not an engine builder and one can end the game with even less that the ‘1’ revenue one has at start. The interactions of various players actions can feel a bit chaotic. One needs to read and internalize these notes and possibly read or know something of the period to derive maximum enjoyment. Knowing the characters at play and how the opium trade was conducted, knowing who Lin Zexu was and what he did, helps enormously and in that regard it invest ones actions with meaning and flavour.
The designer calls this a sandbox game, in that only some of the possibilities inherent in the system, happen in each game. The game allows each player to manage the affairs of a family prominent at the time of the British East India Company (BEIC) and its involvement in India. The idea is to amass victory points that are attained in three main ways – by buying manor houses, by buying shares in the BEIC and by buying prizes, the latter being the main objective.
The board consists of spaces for family actions or company actions. In the family action spaces, player cubes become various places: manor, shipyard or factory – or vocations: writers, officers and captains. Cubes located in the company action spaces – called officeholders – allow the owner of those cubes to take that company action. Cubes located on places give the owner either victory points or money.
A turn consists of the following phases:
Family – each player chooses one place to put one or two of their cubes.
Company – after filling any vacancies each office in the Company operates. This is the heart of the game.
Trade – generate personal revenue
Evening Post – a reference to a newspaper, but this is essentially an Event phase.
In the Family phase, players can choose between purchasing a manor for victory points or buying shares in the BEIC, or buying a shipyard or factory, or sending their family members (cubes) to be writers, officers or captains.
In the Company phase the office holders execute actions in order. First, there are the three Purchasing Offices. The first two allow the purchase of ships and goods. The third – Military Affairs converts goods to guns to aid in conquest of Regions of India.
Following those offices is the Director of Trade who assigns goods and ships to the three Presidencies – Bengal, Madras and Bombay.
Then the Presidencies act, and they have three options: campaign to conquer territories, open new regions to British trade, or sail (which should probably have been called trade), as one is fulfilling orders in the Regions in the presidencies.
The Trade phase generates income through taxing of the Regions, (and players can ‘divert’ some of that income into the family treasury), the family controlling a presidency takes income equal to the number of fulfilled orders, and also for each of their ships with a captain. Company expenses now need to be paid: debts, military upkeep and for each captain. Dividends also need to be paid and if not paid under certain circumstances a bailout occurs, which..is..not..good.
Then the Evening Post is read, that is, events occur. In my experience they are mostly bad…and/or introduce an element of randomness into the game which, while adding great flavour, really messes things around.
There are many more nuances and additional rules and I haven’t described the actions fully but I hope one gets the essential qualities of the game. Most games of ours have tended to get one or more rules wrong. To me, it has more in common with An Infamous Traffic, than Pax Pamir, in that it feels somewhat dry and abstract until one immerses oneself in the history and appreciates the effort the designer has made in integrating the elements that made this period so interesting. It is also more complex than AiT and has more randomness (in the form of the events) and that I find difficult.
To me, Pax Pamir is the most complete game experience of the three. It has the richness and complexity of the earlier Pax game but is accessible after the learning curve and provided one has already accepted the unpredictable and difficult paths to victory. It is also obviously more akin to the other Pax games than to An Infamous Traffic and John Company.
These latter two share a similarity in approach to the game design and because of that they share their weakness and strengths. It seems that in both cases the designer wanted to deliver a model of the system and the historical period the games represent. This, almost despite whether that would deliver a satisfying game experience, at least to non-hardcore gamers (who would expect to devote upwards of say 10 games to begin to experience the depth) or someone who is prepared to spend time getting to know the period and appreciate the historical connections.
I love the artwork of all three games, but Pax Pamir and John Company stand out.
None of these games will leave my collection and Root is a must-buy at Essen, so I am clearly a Cole Wehrle fan, but it is quite difficult to get these games to the table often.
- By Simmy Peerutin